The Strangeness of Sports

I am a fan of the Oakland A’s. Our tribe cohabits the Bay Area with San Francisco Giants fans. In the old days, our teams would only play in spring training and—once in a lifetime—in the World Series. But now, due to interleague play, we see each other six times a year.

The Giants have had the upper hand as of late, probably because they are the better team. Like this last week, when the Giants swept the A’s in three very close games. Ugh.

Immediately after the third game a good friend, a Giants fan, thrilled by his team’s success, called me up to talk about it! I thought he had called to gloat, though I now think he was actually just so excited he didn’t stop to think what he was doing. He wanted to talk to another baseball fan. He called me. Bad idea.

I wasn’t very polite. In fact, I’m ashamed to say, I hung up on him after a few terse words. He felt excited. I felt miserable.

I’ve never really understood this substitutionary deal. How  it is that the fortunes of 25 millionaires none of whom I have ever met seem to control my sense of success or failure, I don’t get, at all. But they do, and not just for me. Millions and millions of us poor devils live and breathe through sports. We can’t help it. We revel in their victories and, more often, we suffer in their defeats.

As I thought about my friend’s call I was struck by the razor blade that separates joy from misery in any competitive event. They are conjoined: one always goes with the other, often on the same field. And they are blind to each other’s existence. The ecstatic victor cannot feel the loser’s pain, nor can the losing sufferer enjoy his opposite’s victory. Each emotion stays pure and separate—even though they are as close as twins.

In life there are win-wins, and there are also lose-loses. Win-wins are seen in growing economies and happy families. Lose-loses appear in riots and trade wars and divorces. But for entertainment, we seek the win-lose of sports, and more all the time. We crave the sharp, cleansing drama of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”—both, together, for they cannot be separated.

This is part of our human nature that I do not understand.

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3 Responses to “The Strangeness of Sports”

  1. Vern peterson Says:

    I agree. Oh, by the way, GO HEAT!!!!!

  2. James Swenson Says:

    Yes, this is very strange. As a Minnesotan in Wisconsin, I’ve been thinking about this from a new perspective in the last few years.

    I lived in Spain for a year, and I remember talking with my host father about the border rivalry between Minnesota and Wisconsin; he was troubled by it, because of his experience with Spanish regionalism. I thought he’d misunderstood me completely, but now I’m not sure.

    The most interesting thing I’ve read lately about this was “The View from the Stands” in the 3/7/2011 New Yorker, on Turkish soccer fanatics. It doesn’t seem to be available online without a subscription, but I’d recommend it. The natural reaction to that article would be that many Turkish people are mentally ill, but after noticing my own emotional reaction against the pro-Miami post above, I don’t feel like I’m in any position to judge.

  3. David Graham Says:

    Perhaps the “up” side to the irrational human response to sports teams is that it makes the concept of “vicarious” actions easy to explain? Does not this participation in someone else’s actions makes Calvary easier to explain to an inquirer of Christianity…?

    Your comments remind me of what Paul Brand/Philip Yancey wrote in their book “The Problem of Pain,” namely that pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. There isn’t the existence of one without the other. We can’t understand it, though it is wise to acknowledge that symbiotic relationship, as you do in this blog.

    By the way, divorce isn’t always a lose-lose situation. It seems to run the whole spectrum from win-win to win-lose to lose-lose.

    I wonder what John Nash, with his work in game theory, would have to say about the various win-lose situations you posited?

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